THURSDAY, April 15, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Love can be good for your heart -- and not just the heart you read about in poems and Valentine's Day cards.
New research suggests close relationships help protect heart attack survivors against future cardiovascular problems.
Survivors without intimate partners, relatives or friends were twice as likely to suffer from major heart problems within a year. "Heart patients and doctors must both be prepared to examine emotional and social aspects of their life as well as the physical factors," said study co-author Dr. Francis Creed, a professor of psychological medicine at the Manchester Royal Infirmary in the United Kingdom.
The research is only the latest to show a link between mental well-being and the workings of the cardiovascular system. "Previous work has shown, reasonably conclusively, that depression, anxiety and lack of social support are independent risk factors for developing heart disease," Creed said.
He and his colleagues tried to replicate American and Canadian studies that linked depression to higher rates of death in people who just had heart attacks. They screened 1,034 British patients within three to four days of their heart attacks and followed them for a year.
The findings appear in the May issue of Heart.
In an unusual twist, the researchers found depression didn't seem to contribute to the risk of second heart attacks. But "we did find that lack of social support -- not having a person with whom one can share all -- was related to an increased chance of a further heart attack or severe angina," Creed said. The link between close relationships and future heart problems held up even when the researchers took into account factors like smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol and treatment for heart disease.
It didn't seem to matter if the relationships were with partners and lovers or friends and relatives. "The fact of having at least one close intimate relationship seems to be the important factor," Creed said.
It's possible that the people close to them may encourage heart attack patients to take better care of their health, he said. "We also know that those with a close confidant react to stress with less of an upsurge of hormones. This may be particularly important after a heart attack when the heart is particularly susceptible to an increase in stress hormones."
The patients who lacked close relationships were more likely to report having a "disrupted relationship" with their parents during childhood, suggesting the body's poor response to stress could have begun years earlier, Creed said.
Dr. Roger S. Blumenthal, a spokesman for the American Heart Association, said the findings are reasonable. The results "point out that psychosocial factors can have a big impact on who's going to develop heart problems in the future," said Blumenthal, director of the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Preventive Cardiology Center. They "support what most of us think from a common-sense point of view."